Overcoming Feedback Fears

If you are a manager or a supervisor, then part of your role is to provide your direct reports with feedback in order to help them develop and progress. If you are to do this well then it is important that you understand why people can find it hard to receive feedback. This understanding will help you to deliver better feedback.

Even in organisations which attempt to promote a culture of open feedback, people can still be fearful in situations in which they receive feedback. The reason for this can be found in the way the human brain is hardwired to scan the environment for potential threats and the way it reacts when it detects these – the so called “flight or flight” reaction.

The “flight or fight” reaction is an evolutionary response to a real or imagined physical threat. When triggered it creates a chain reaction of physiological changes. These physiological changes include an increased heart rate, faster breathing and the feeling of “butterflies” in the stomach.

This heightened emotional state is not the best state to be in when listening to feedback as it makes the person less likely to hear and digest the feedback and so change what they do in the future. It can also result in a negative association, so in future any mention of the word “feedback” automatically triggers a threat response in them even before any feedback is actually given.

There are a number of different types of “threat” that could trigger the “fight or flight” response during a social interaction. The research by David Rock identified five key factors. His model, often referred to as the SCARF model, is often used to help explain these factors:

The first factor is our need to compare favourably with others around us. In other words maintaining our Status.

The next factor is our need to be able to predict the future and to reduce ambiguity. This is our need for Certainty.

Then we have the need to be influential and to make our own choices. This is oru need for Autonomy.

Next is our need for Relatedness. This is our need to feel like we belong to a group and have bonds with those in this group.

Finally is our need for Fairness – in other words to be treated fairly and justly by others.

So whenever our Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness or Fairness is threatened our threat reaction is triggered.

So what can you do as a manager or supervisor to minimise these threat responses when giving feedback? Here are three suggestions for you to use:

1. To increase peoples certainty, discuss up front with your employees how you will give them feedback and how frequently. This discussion should be done ideally at their induction or when you become their manager/supervisor. Then stick to this. By ensuring your direct reports understand the process and frequency of feedback, you help to reduce any ambiguity around the giving and receiving of it.

2. You can increase people’s autonomy by encouraging regular self-assessment. By allowing people the opportunity to evaluate their own performance before you give them feedback you help them to feel more in control of both the feedback and of any choices they make to change their future actions as a result of the feedback.

3. To increase people’s perception of fairness always give them specific feedback with actual examples. When giving feedback you need to distinguish between the person’s intent (which in most situations is likely to have been positive) and the impact of their actions (which may have been unintentionally negative). By separating intent from impact the feedback you give is more likely to be seen as ‘fair’ feedback.

Feedback is not something that should be feared by either the manager/supervisor or their direct reports. It should be seen and embraced as a valuable tool to help people develop and improve.

However, someone’s reaction to the feedback that you give them may not always be what you expected. Remember, their reaction might be driven by one of the five innate threat responses. It is your responsibility as a manager/supervisor to manage and prevent these negative reactions as far as possible.

If your managers, supervisors and employees would benefit from training on how to give and receive feedback, then please contact us.